"And so the Navajos came home. When the new reservation lines were surveyed, much of their best pastureland was taken away for the white settlers. Life would not be easy. They would have to struggle to endure."
-Dee Brown, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee."
IN 1868 THE Navajos were released after five years of military internment. The migratory tribe has been punished for raiding and plundering settlers and other Indians. The Navajos have been rounded up and transported by the legendary Kit Carson with the orders "reserve or kill." A fifth of the 10,000 tribe members died during the confinement.
When they returned on foot to their homelands, the Navajos were devastated to find that during their absence the flocks which were their livelihood had shrunk from 200,000 to just 940 sheep. after centuries of being nomads, the Navajos were shocked into the realization that if they were going to endure they would have to make a new way of life.
Thus, in one of those curious ironies dotting the horrendous history of the Indian, one of the less-settled and, by common definition, less "civilized" Western tribes turned to their traditional arts and crafts as a way to live. The blankets, rugs, jewelry and baskets that once were strictly utilitarian became their economic base. Today even a small rug can sell for $10,000.
The Indian craftmanship, especially Navajo, is art is the point of an ambitious and handsome exhibit by the Baltimore Museum of Art. Ninety-three boldly patterned rugs and blankets are spread across the walls. Three hundred and fifty baskets made by various western tribes stretching from New Mexico to Alaska are exhibited with them.
The very circumstances of this show provide a striking demonstration of the difficulty of Indian art - and craft art in general - to gain its proper place of honor in America's galleries (especially in the East). Eighty per cent of these articles are from the museum's own Indian collection, described in the catalog as "hitherto unknown" to the public, even though the bulk goes back to a bequest in 1953 by Florence Reese Winslow. Few of the objects had ever been out of the museum's archives until this exhibition. Dena Katzenberg, the museum's textiles consultant, spurred by the increasing interest in things Indian, (ans a trip to Arizona to recover from a wool allergy caused by her Indigo show) put the display together. To fill out stylistic gaps in the Baltimore collection, she borrowed objects from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, among others.
Typical of the sort of prize discovered once she started rummaging through the Winslow collection is the highly geometric rug illustrated here. The interlacing stepped lines gave an effect that is not unlike, in spirit at least, the mazez of the Escher print. The 1920 rug shows a characteristically Navajo concern for, and inventiveness with, abstract forms that is distinctly contemporary. Note, for instance, that the weaver deliberately countered the symmetry of the central figure by varying the placement and size of the surrounding figures.
The rug, which measures 43 by 28 inches, is one of the four similar in style but different in configuration owned by the Baltimore Museum. they come from the weavers of the Two Gray Hills section in northwest INDIAN, From G1> New Mexico, one of seven rug-producing areas in the vast Navajo reserve. Each has its own stylistic traits and techniques, gradually refined as each generation finds new ways to use them. Two Gray Hills rugs are particularly prized because of the skill in weaving and the deliberate understatement of the colors - white, gray, tan and black.
Particularly valuable because of their rarity, as well as their serenity, are the chiefs' pattern blankets from the late 19th century, like the delicately designed one from 1880 shown here. The upper, middle and lower bands are mellow reds and blues; the stripes are black.
These can be very expensive, says Mrs. Katzenberg, because they are seldom at the market. "Classics go up to about $18,000," she observed, standing in the middle of the room full of them.
Perhaps the best known of the Navajo textiles are the "eye-dazzlers," characterized by their zigzagging patterns and their brilliant colors, particularly their reds. Large in size and kaleidoscopic in effect, they resemble the busier works of abstract expressionist painting. along with some pictorial patterns in equally strong colors, they are grouped in a single large gallery, and are smashing on first glance.
It is surprising to the uninitiated to discover that few of the varieties of abstract forms that are used in Navajo rugs have any deep symbolism springing from the tribe's traditions. Most are simply the inventions of the women who weave them on their upright looms, or forms that have been suggested to them - some traders introduced Near Eastern designs to the weavers. Navajo men are only beginning to take up weaving, although one noted exception some years ago specialized in reproducing sand paintings.
Today there is great interest in baskets in home design, both as display and utilitarian objects. For this reason, the basket section would be very popular. But this is futile to try to suggest within a limited space any idea even of the stylistic range of a collection of 350 Indian baskets from 41 different tribes, scattered over thousands of miles of the American West. These artifacts more commonly were designed for utilitarian purposes than the rugs, and because of their fragility, baskets dating from the last half of the 19th century are considered very early.
Perhaps two examples will indicate the kind of inventiveness with which the basket weavers employ grace in form and patterning on their crafts. a hat designed by the Canadian Nootka tribe on Vancouver Island is cone-shaped, top with an onion dome. The Russian influence remains with the Indians of the Far Northwest more than a century after the Russians left Alaska. A hat designed by the Tlingtits on the coast of British Columbia is a funnel shape rising into five cylindrical ornaments with an ermine-skin tassel.
More recently the use of color has became more common in Indian basketry, as shown in the ceremonial bowl illustrated with this story. Vertical stripes of triangles alternate between black and red on a tan ground. it came from the Washo tribe on the California-Nevada border near Lake Tahoe.
The entrance gallery of the show is devoted to instructive material on the background of the textiles (woven baskets by the way, are regarded as a form of textiles). And for those interested in details of the entire show as well as explanations of the weaving technicalities, Mrs. Katzenberg has written an excellent, attractive and exhaustive catalog. It can be obtained for $12 (plus $1 for the postage) from the Museum Shop, Baltimore Museum of Art, museum Drive, Baltimor, Md., 21218. the well-installed show (with the help of the National Endowment of the Arts grant) runs through Nov. 13.
The title of the exhibit, "And Eagles Sweep Across the Sky," is a quotation from a speech by the Navajo chief, Ganado Mucho, as he began the long march from confinement back to the homelands. "Let us be free to build a better way of life and learn to live in peace where the red buttes rises fron the desert sands, and eagles sweep across the sky."